Illinois transfer Bryce Douglas embraces 'the UNI way' to get on the field

Defensive lineman has become key cog as Panthers advance in FCS playoffs

Northern Iowa defensive lineman Bryce Douglas (98) participates in a drill an open practice at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, April 15, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Northern Iowa defensive lineman Bryce Douglas (98) participates in a drill an open practice at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, April 15, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Bryce Douglas is an important piece to a top-rated FCS defense at Northern Iowa.

However, the Plainfield, Ill., native had a circuitous route before becoming a starter at UNI.

He began his college career at Illinois, where his dad, Bruce, starred on the Illini’s basketball team before going on to play in the NBA. It was a dream destination for Douglas when he first got to Champaign in 2013, but like many college football players, the coaching staff turned over and a disconnect about an MRI result with the new staff led to him requesting his release and seeking a new team.

Along with his roommate at Illinois — former UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey — Douglas was pointed in the direction of Cedar Falls when Bailey’s uncle, an employee at the University of Wisconsin, talked highly of the Panthers after having seen them come within five points of defeating the Badgers in a 2012 matchup.

Hoping to go where his roommate went, Douglas transferred to UNI along with Bailey in the spring of 2015 and, like a lot of former FBS players who have transferred to the FCS, Douglas was anticipating he’d be able to get on the field immediately and make a difference for the Panthers. That wouldn’t turn out for the then-sophomore, who saw limited action in three games in 2015 and got his biggest wake-up call during the playoffs that season when instead of moving up the depth chart and getting an opportunity to play after an injury to Adam Reth, the lineup was shuffled and defensive end Isaac Ales was moved inside to tackle, leaving Douglas out of the mix and looking in the mirror.

“That 2015 year was full of obstacles. Ups and downs,” he said. “It was a real roller coaster ride. I hadn’t earned Coach (Mark) Farley’s trust yet. He couldn’t trust me to be in a game of that magnitude. It was a shock for me, and an eye-opening experience.

“I hadn’t proven to play and practice the UNI way. I had to look in the mirror and I had to realize something has to change and I have to do whatever’s necessary to make that change.”

Determined not to experience a repeat of 2015, Douglas set out on a mission in the offseason. His close relationship with former UNI defensive line coach Bryce Paup was critical to putting him on the right track.

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“Coach Paup never gave up on me,” Douglas said. “He always told me he believed in me. He would call me into his office almost every day and we wouldn’t just go up there to talk football. He would give me some Bible verses to read because he knew my dad was a pastor. Once that season ended, he called me into his office and he told me, he looked me in the eye, and said, ‘I believe in you and you deserve to be playing. But I’m also a realist and know you weren’t ready to play this year.’ His honesty is what really got me.”

While Paup left for a job with Minnesota that offseason, it didn’t stop Douglas from achieving what he set out to do. He lost 40 pounds and was feeling better personally and on the football field playing at 295 pounds. His new mind-set and new physique translated into a starting spot in Week 1 against Iowa State.

Now, more than a year later, Douglas is starring at tackle on a feared defensive line that’s aiming for a championship run after a rough start to the season.

“We called a meeting (after losing to Southern Utah),” Douglas said. “We said we’ve got to stop talking about wanting to be the best defense in the nation ... During that meeting we had talked about wanting to be like the fire department. My dad told me when the fire department gets called the firefighters don’t ask who started the fire and why, they just, once they hear the bell ring, they get up and go. That’s what our defense took the mentality of. We’re the fire department.”

Douglas and Northern Iowa will look to extinguish No. 5 seed South Dakota State (9-2, 6-2 MVFC) at 2 p.m. Saturday in Brookings, S.D., in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

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